Killoyle, An Irish Farce

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Two Strokes

By Roger Boylan

[Note: What follows is not an excerpt from Killoyle, but the original short story from which the novel grew.
It's a substantial work that you may want to print out and read from a hard copy, rather than on screen.]

The worst students were the best ones, as the teacher's saying had it. By that definition, Hockenburg, the tall German with the skin problem, was the worst of the lot. Being German, he was the only student who never forgot his homework, or missed a class, or arrived late--never, in fact, did anything that might betray ordinary human weakness. His critical faculties were especially acute at half-eight on Monday mornings, when he arrived as punctually as the Munich-Hamburg express, frowning in disapproval at Myles's bottomless yawns and dishevelled morning face. In class he hectored loudly and held Myles personally responsible for every grammatical conundrum in the English language, causing Myles to wonder, idly, what Herr Hockenburg père had been up to, fifty or so years previously; as a consequence, Myles was looking forward to the bank holiday and its promise of not one but three Hockenburgless days as feverishly as a prisoner yearns for the date of his release.

There were other Germans at Interworld Language Academy, along with the Japanese, Italians, French, Spaniards, sundry Eastern Europeans and Chinese or two who formed a student body one hundred and seventy strong. This was down twenty from the year before, but Colonel Rainbird, the director, had great hopes for the next year, when the global impact would be felt of the glossy full-color brochures he'd mailed out to banks and businesses from Minsk to Tokyo. Myles was doubtful. Given the choice between learning English in Ireland and learning it in England, most foreigners would choose England, nine times out of ten. Only Interworld's lower prices and its location eight miles from the Continental ferry docks at Rosslare kept them coming, even if they came with all the usual muddled notions about Ireland and the Irish. A school run by the English, in England, was, in their minds, first cousin to Oxford and Cambridge, and indeed most British language schools, in Myles's experience, meretriciously boasted names evocative of dreaming spires and medieval quadrangles: Oxwell, Canterbridge, Harrowford. A school in Ireland, on the other hand, implied mercurial Celtic behavior along bomb-throwing, drunken, and/or spontaneous verse-spouting lines, but those who expected to find such folkloric scenes in high gear when they arrived were soon disappointed. Colonel Rainbird, the director, maintained strict discipline and austere standards of behavior for staff and students alike. Indeed, it could be said (and often was) that the Colonel's eighteen years in the British Army (Royal Inniskillings) had drained away the very little Irish he'd been born with. Under his firm rule most of the ne'er-do-wells were soon weeded out, leaving the Hockenburgs to flourish. Interworld Academy, as Myles was wont to observe, combined the coziness of the Tower of London with all the career opportunities of a Roman galley.

It was Friday, the week was dead, long live Bank Holiday. By ten past five the staffroom was empty, except for Myles and jolly Ben Ryan.

"Where are you off to this weekend, Myles?" inquired jolly Ben with deadly irony, as it was well known that dull Myles never went anywhere except Gallogly's Bar on Saturday nights.

"Oh I don't know. I might pop up to Cork for the book fair."

"Come out of that, boy." Ben tossed his briefcase into his locker. "You know perfectly well you won't stir from the idiot box until tomorrow night, then you'll get laggards at Gallogly's and spend all day Sunday sleeping it off and all day Monday catching up on the Sunday papers."

It was a sketch taken from the life as only one who had seen Myles Nolan's life at close range could have sketched it, and Ben Ryan had spent half his first year at Interworld Academy sharing digs with Myles, then in his third year there, and in the intervening two years nothing much had changed in Myles's fretful bachelorhood; only this weekend there was the faintest flicker of long-damped flames.

"As a matter of fact, Ben, I have no plans to watch the television at all," said Myles, dismissing with an airy wave the very idea of telly. "I was considering making a call on a young lady."

"Were you now. Jesus, steady on, Myles. Do I know the lovely colleen at all?"

"You might. And then again you might not."

"Cagey, aren't we? Fair enough. A man's entitled to his little secrets. I've one of my own in Dublin and I don't want to keep her waiting. Good luck, old Myles."

"Cheers, Ben."

And Ben was gone to his car, a sports model that would transport him at high speed through the October dusk to the one million inhabitants and sexy secrets of the Hibernian metropolis. Myles finished his cigarette and flicked the end into the silently crumbling peat fire. It was God's own truth, he was considering making a call on a young lady, but there was no doubt about Ben's knowing her. She, too, endured the tortured vowels and verbal horrors of Hockenburg and his kind, and Ben would probably laugh if he knew. The lady was Clare Machen, their own course supervisor--Mac Hen, Ben called her, quite unfairly in Myles's opinion. Clare was a clever girl: honors degree from UCD, two poems published in The Irish Press. Clever, and not at all hard on the eyes, in fact (Myles thought) she had at least as good a figure as that Spanish bint in Intermediate Two Ben was always slobbering over. She was unmarried, like Myles, and like Myles she lived in a bungalow on The Parade, ten minutes' brisk walk from the Academy and about the same distance from Myles. As colleagues, however, they inhabited different worlds. Clare gave Myles instructions and Myles carried them out in his languid way; yet there was no male-female opposition between them because Myles Nolan was deeply indifferent to that kind of thing--as well as being, as Ben and others were kind enough to say from time to time, a Decent Fellow Altogether. Clare herself had also said something similar only a week before, and Myles derived hope from this; hope, and determination. The time for collaring a woman was at hand. The single life had its points--freedom to dream, freedom to come and go at odd hours, freedom to get rotten fluttery-eyed drunk--but he was thirty-nine, and there was a long celibate funk ahead if he didn't abandon the snug sameness of television, Gallogly's Bar and the Sunday papers for at least one more gallop into the arena. Once before, in his more energetic early thirties, he'd mounted his charger and entered the lists, but combat had suddenly been called off when a Lancelot named (he'd never forget) Steve Jablonski--ex-U.S. Marine, ex-seminarian--took over the defense of the young woman's virtue by robbing her of it. Consequently, the district of South Dublin where she lived, between Milltown and Windy Arbour, was forever Jablonskied; in fact, whenever America, or Americans, were mentioned, Myles first saw that suburban stretch of Dublin, fleetingly, in his mind's eye, just as a certain row of bungalows along The Parade popped into mental view at the thought of the upcoming Bank Holiday Weekend...

Footsteps marching down the corridor at a martial pace tore Myles away from the old days. Colonel Rainbird was conducting a final tour of inspection before going home. On his bald head sat a Donegal tweed cap, his nightly off-duty signal.

"Still hanging about, Nolan?" he inquired, rhetorically.

"Yes, sir. I can't seem to get going." Myles stiffened slightly to attention, despite himself.

"Bloody Germans want me to drive 'em to Cork for some music festival or other," grumbled the Colonel. "Said yes just to get 'em out of the way for the weekend. Can't have the Boche belting out old favourites in the local hostelries, can we? Might dry up our credit for good."

"Credit's always important," suggested Myles.

"Right you are. Never more so than when you operate on a shoestring, as we do. Well, I'm off. Fancy a lift down to the town? I've got the old bus outside."

"No thanks, sir. I'll walk. It's a nice quiet sort of evening."

"Will be when Jerry's safely on his way. Half eight on Tuesday, then?"

"Half eight it is, sir."

The Colonel departed, on his way to confront the old enemy. Hockenburg, Myles was sure, would be the group leader, or gruppenführer, of the Cork expedition, or offensive. He imagined them arms linked, roaring Die Wacht am Rhein in some half-timbered rural inn; then he chided himself for indulging in the kind of one-dimensional stereotype he disliked so much when it was applied to his own compatriots.

Still, there was some truth in all stereotypes, including the ones about Ireland. You just had to go beyond them, even if sometimes they seemed dead on the ball. As with Germans.

The streetlights along Toole Street, which meandered downhill from the Academy to the town, were already lit and twinkled mistily through the trees. Small groups of students, clustered together according to nationality, were standing at the gates, all abandoning English in the urgency of deciding where to go and how to get there. Myles reckoned the French and Italians would head for Dublin, or even London, and two or three would find better things to do than return to Interworld Academy on Tuesday morning. As for the Japanese, they would undoubtedly flock southward to County Kerry and the Dingle peninsula, having been instructed to do so before leaving Japan, and in a week or two Myles and his colleagues would be have to sit through a slide show depicting beaming Japanese faces against the mournful backdrop of Kerry. Actually--and this was unexpected, at least to Myles (one stereotype up the spout)--the Japanese were riotous pubcrawlers. Four of the town's fourteen pubs were on permanent Japanese alert, not enforcing an all-out ban--the consensus among publicans being that the almighty Yen spoke louder than the odd broken windowpane--but stopping short of actually hanging out the Rising Sun in welcome.

Myles directed a general wave to all on his way out, ignored by all except Mr. Watanabe from Intermediate Two, who never did his homework and who waved back, wildly, with both hands.

* * * * *

Myles lived in a plain one-level house of the type known in seaside towns as a bungalow, with the word's lingering nostalgia for horizons on which the sun never set. It was at the bottom end of The Parade and commanded a view, through the stone crosses of St. Colm's churchyard, of the water and, in fine weather, of the white sails of the leisure class. In autumn and winter, with the leisure class slaloming down Alpine slopes or cresting the Aegean waves, only the Havre and Fishguard ferries out of Rosslare Harbour interrupted the solid blue line of the sea. Most days Myles took his breakfast at a spindly table facing the window in his parlor, and when the sun was out it was a fine sight, blue on blue, with a pinkish mist in the distance that might have risen from Bahamian atolls--the Maldives--Tahiti--far Tortuga itself!--but only came from Wales.

On Saturday morning Myles, breakfasting early, stared out to sea and devised insinuating phrases to capture the heart of Clare Machen, or at least to gain admittance to her bungalow. Myles belonged to the courtly and timid ranks of bachelors who, when encouraged, cling like limpets, but who otherwise--if ignored or rebuffed or opposed by forces of Jablonski strength--simply watch and dream from a distance. This watching and distant dreaming went well beyond mere longing for tempest-tossed romance. In all that he did Myles was removed, yet not indifferent; like an artist or scientist, he watched and deduced, but being neither artist nor scientist his deductions led no further than his dreams. His students sometimes caught him gazing slack-jawed, as in shock, at the portrait of Jonathan Swift that hung above the door in Intermediate Two, but it was no sudden amazement at the sight of the dotty old Dean that brought on the vacant stare. It was a meandering process of thought that might originate in the third or fourth repetition of the Past Perfect Tense ("Maï dogue ad hallready beeten ze postman wan Haï harrived"), then bounce off the walls past the narrow view of the car park through the half-shuttered windows up to the ceiling and finally come to rest on the bug-eyed Dean, whose image would summon up memories of Dublin--the Liberties--the good old eighteenth century when men were more or less men--other memories, mostly fabricated--visions of periwigged Myles amid admiring ladies of Gainsborough splendour...then someone, not infrequently Hockenburg, would irritably recall him to the drab reality of Intermediate Two.

English grammar was too small a stage for Myles's ambitions, but ambition and energy were mismatched in his indolent soul.

He went for a walk that Saturday, as he did every Saturday. but instead of heading directly to the quayside, as he usually did, he took a detour up the Parade past Clare Machen's house, in the feeble hope that Coincidence might step in and arrange a meeting ("Clare! How are you! Listen! Do you think we might...?"), but no such meeting occurred, although he could easily have forced one by marching up her front path and ringing the doorbell. He did nothing of the kind; in fact, he was beginning to wonder if all this carryon was worth the faint but persistent discomfort in his intestines he had been feeling since Bank Holiday weekend began. There was an all-or-nothing quality about gambling on a woman's goodwill that suited a more desperate personality than Myles. A rebuff, even a gentle one, would tip the balance of their friendship, and the ensuing gossip might capsize it altogether. Myles dreaded the evil nibbling of gossip. Silly fellow that he was, the worst anyone could say was that he drank himself sillier during the long quiet hours; rebuffed, he would stand as a monument of failure, even a laughingstock. Better err on the side of caution, cautious Myles advised himself.

Others, mostly from Dublin, discovered the southeast coast on long weekends, and they and their children filled the streets, eating fried cod and chips from newspaper cones, wrangling in loud city voices about the quality of Co. Wexford fried cod and chips compared to the Dublin variety, taking pictures of one another posed against piers and blue water that might have been anywhere from there to Teneriffe, and generally upsetting the civic order for its own good, because without the big city money the place would soon sink into provincial torpor. Myles quite enjoyed the tourists, with their reminder of bustle and the urban life that sometimes seemed as remote as the places his students came from. Like Mr. Watanabe of Osaka, who was lounging outside Donovan's Bar on the corner of The Parade and Collins Street, hands in pockets, head cocked jauntily to one side. Myles was reminded of a photograph of James Joyce and wondered where the young J.J. would have exiled himself, had he been Japanese: Shanghai? Honolulu? Probably Paris.

"Good afternoon, Mr. Watanabe," said Myles, drawing near.

"Oh," gasped Mr. Watanabe. "Hi, teacher." He grinned. "Top of afternoon to you, ha?" His grin lingered, sloppily, hinting at drink already taken.

"Why aren't you away to Killarney with the rest of them?" asked Myles.

Watanabe beamed in pleasure. "Most Japanese are sheep. One goes, everyone go. Goes. I try to be different. If Japanese people, they stayed here for weekend, I ood go to Kil-lar-ney. But there's too many Japanese people here. I don't come here to see other Japanese people. I come, came, have come? To have fun. Learn English. Drink Irish beer!" He finished in a near-shout. Passersby turned their heads to look at the noisy Asian and his Irish companion. Whom he now invited across the threshold of Donovan's Bar to share a drink. Myles accepted with some reluctance, it being only half-two in the afternoon under a booming blue sky that spoke of other things than tippling; but Mr. Watanabe had been among Irishmen long enough to learn that few of them refused a drink if others were paying. They went in together.

"You again," said the barman.

"Oh! Hello, Tim," said Mr. Watanabe. "This is Professor Myles."

"Aha. Now you listen to me," said Tim, lowering his voice and leaning forward on the bar. "I don't want none of them dirty songs again, never mind if the owld whores in here think it's good crack."

"I am sorry, Tim. In Japan we'll go to Karaoke bar to drink and sing. When you come to Osaka I take you to best Karaoke bar and you can sing Irish songs."

"Fair enough," said Tim. "When I come to Japan we'll go on the tear. But as long as you're here, I'm warnin' yez now, we'll have the guards in the place if you start up with them songs again."

"I will not sing," said Mr. Watanabe, sternly.

"Good man. What'll it be, then?"

"Two pints of stout," said Mr. Watanabe. "And a double Bush."

Doubles and pints were mother's milk to Mr. Watanabe. Fierce in his intentions, he devoted himself single-mindedly to the task and tolerated no shirking. Myles was in danger of finding himself outclassed. Watanabe's technique was first to swallow the head off his pint, then empty his double whiskey into the beer and finish off the mixture in two or three gigantic gulps. It was an untutored, even crude, method of drinking, but an effective one. After three of these cocktails Watanabe was crimson-faced but still going strong. Myles called on deep ancestral reserves to meet the challenge and by the time the regulars started to arrive in the bar, around five, his tally was one double Bushmills behind Watanabe. Together they totalled an even dozen. Myles was fever-hot and soaring into wide yellow-gold skies somewhere east of Mandalay.

"I swear to God, Mr. Watanabe," he began, but he was cut off by an upraised hand.

"No, no," said Watanabe. "Too formal. We drink together all day. My name is Takayoshi, but you can call me Taka."

"Grand, Taka. As I was saying, I swear to God bloomin' almighty that one of these days I'll go to Japan. I'll get out of this bloody jacks of a town somehow. Get on an airplane and get off in Japan. I swear before God and all the massed saints of Ireland."

"Japan is most beautiful in May."

"Ah. Right. Cherry blossom time and all that carry-on, is it?"

"Not just cherry blossom. Also Sake festival. And you know, Myles, it is much better pay in Japan for English teacher. In Japan student has respect for teacher."

"No bloody respect here, that's certain. You're right, Taka. I'm for the Land of the Rising Sun. Slainte."

"Good luck."

Watanabe swallowed the last of his six doubles and rose to his feet, which he briefly scrutinized, before clearing his throat eloquently; then, to Myles's horror, he started to sing, approximately.

"Oh Babs the Babe she was a wench

Who liked the sound of love--huh!

Who liked the sound of love, oh yeah."

The stolid Irish citizenry at the bar, taken by surprise, suddenly fell silent, pints halfway to lips, mouths agape.

"And when she kiss," wailed Mr. Watanabe, "she kiss so good, oh! IKNOW I'M GONNA DIE, OH YEAH."

"Come along, there, Taka, we don't want to be chucked out now. Sit down, for Christ's sake," muttered Myles, but the muse, or muses, had triumphed. Taka was in full swing, ceremoniously Asian, bawdily Caucasian, swaying from side to side, eyes closed.

"So WHOOP go her booty feet, up into the hay!

And WHOOP go her pretty bum, up into the air!"

"Right," shouted Tim the barman. "Can't say I didn't warn yez. Go sing yer Chinese love songs somewhere else and don't come back."

Watanabe stopped singing and opened his eyes. The drinking had resumed at the bar, but the drinkers were watching him uneasily, a sidelong scrutiny by Irish natives of this unexpected Asiatic gentleman.

"I am not fucking Chinese," said Watanabe, slowly and distinctly. "I want apology, please."

"Apology me arse. Out with the pair of yez or I call the guards."

"No. Apology or I will break everything."

"Right," said Tim. "Hang on there, lads. I'll be back when I've taken care of the Yellow Peril." A pint glass whizzed through the air and exploded into shards on the opposite wall. "Mother of God what was that. You bloody Buddhist. I'll set yez right, so I will."

The donnybrook that followed was vigorous and, for Myles, an exhilarating glimpse of the sporting life. Two of the sturdier men at the bar joined in the Home Team, with Myles on the side of the Visitors. Watanabe scored bulls' eyes on the dartboard with two of his pint glasses and narrowly missed Tim's bald head with a third, followed by an ashtray and a whiskey glass that smashed into the mirror behind the bar, creating a zigzag pattern of cracks Cubist or Dadaist in concept. Myles, punched once in the eye, punched back and felled an ugly masher twice his size, then he and Watanabe threw up a barricade of overturned tables and battled their way laterally to the door, pressed every inch of the way by Tim and his bruisers. The noncombatant audience at the bar clapped and cheered when, finally, the Nippo-Hibernian fighting unit was pushed out into the street and almost into the arms of the Gardai. Three uniformed members of that body were hurrying up as Myles and Taka tumbled out, but, drunk as they were, they still had the presence of mind to split up and head off in opposite directions to confuse the enemy. Myles half ran, half staggered down Collins Street to The Parade and relaxed his pace in the early evening throng of tourists. God, he said to himself, that was a grand old barney, so it was, and what I need now is a drink.

On his way in search of additional, redundant alcohol--deciding on a quieter venue, maybe The Quare Fellow on the Wexford Road--his previously longed-for Coincidence quietly intervened and he saw Clare Machen, carrying two shopping bags, crossing over from the supermarket at Toole Street. The ordinary weekday Myles Nolan would have frozen in his tracks and probably run away, but at six o'clock on that glorious Saturday evening--with the sun dipping behind the looming fortress of Interworld Academy on the hill and a sheen on the sea all the way to Wales--Myles was more than his ordinary self. He was fueled by six pints of stout and three doubles and cherry blossom time in old Honshu. As Clare approached, it was a merry Myles who greeted her with a kiss on both cheeks as, tut-tutting, he snatched the shopping bags from her hands.

"Now, you're not about to carry them huge bloody things up the hill," he said. "Not when you've me at your side to do the heavy work."

"Thank you, Myles," she said. Myles was smiling fixedly, like a politician courting votes. Clare, arms folded, gave him a long once-over.

"You've been in the pubs," she said. He nodded, still smiling.

"You're flewtered," she said, decisively. He laughed.

"Not at all, girl. Just in good fighting trim." They walked along together. Myles was carrying both shopping bags in one hand, as if to demonstrate immense strength.

"You know Watanabe in Intermediate Two?" he asked. "The fellow who does damn-all?"

"Oh yes. The notorious Mr. Watanabe."

"Well, the notorious Mr. W. and I are after getting ourselves turfed out of Donovan's Bar because all of a sudden your man gets to his feet and starts bawling about Merry Molly's bum, bringing down the wrath of the management on our heads and exposing, I'm afraid to say, the ugly face of Irish racism. Oh it's a fine tolerant race we are when there's nothing but other Irish faces around, but bring on a Jap and by Christ we're no better than hand-me-down Brits." Smiling no longer, Myles was uplifted by righteous anger. "That bugger behind the bar called him a Chinaman, and do you know what Watanabe said?"

"No, what did he say?" Clare, aglow with sympathetic indignation.

"He said, 'I am not fucking Chinese'."

"That must have put them in their place."

"True enough. Well, not entirely. They threw us out. But it just goes to show, eh? You don't want to go about messing with the Japanese."

They walked on to Clare's bungalow, named Villa Bella Vista by its previous owners, ardent gardeners and lovers of gnomes, six of which still peopled the flowered lawn behind the house; as a former member of the UCD Republican Women's Drama Collective (Official Wing), Clare--with a fine sense of republican-collectivist drama--had painted the gnomes' caps the colors of the Tricolour, so that the six small heads formed two rows of green, white and gold on either side of the garden path. Myles had never seen the garden and expressed his admiration for Clare's inventive touch when, after depositing the groceries in the kitchen, they went on a tour of the property. Along the pathway the gnomes' heads spelled out the banner of the Republic, down to the stand of trees that shivered red and yellow in the evening light. Beyond the neighboring houses on the slope below the sea stretched wide; from across the sea, like Myles's students, came the night. Ships' lights on the horizon punctuated the approaching darkness. This view, which had become so familiar to Myles, seemed suddenly unusually significant, as if there were meaning in the ships' lights (lost souls? beacons of hope?) and the darkening sky (disease? despair?), or was it, he wondered, only the drink and the startling fact of having eased himself past the barricade of small talk into conversation with Clare and, no less amazingly, into her house?

"Would you like a drink?"

"Clare, I thought you'd never ask."

Clare produced whiskey and they sat by the fireplace in facing armchairs. To Clare, Myles was the odd one. Whether he was a marginal case or just an introvert she didn't know, nor could she decide if his seemingly disconnected remarks denoted wit or idiocy. At the Academy they occasionally had social evenings lubricated with Babycham and ginger ale--except for the Colonel, who sipped discreetly from a flask and disappeared early on--but when Myles attended these functions, which he did rarely, he sat alone in a corner unless called upon to make introductions or propose a toast, duties he abhorred and performed in a wandering monotone. What was worse, he never seemed to go anywhere. Clare, who from her college days had been socially inclined, wondered what bachelor neuroses tormented him, and her wondering was the next thing to interest, the way women warily circumnavigate eccentric solitary men. Once, Myles had walked her home after class, and instead of talking about himself, or gossiping about the students or the other teachers, he went on without a pause about the matriarchal element in ancient Irish culture and, on parting, urged her to read Graves's The White Goddess. If she did (he said), she would understand herself better as a woman! Raving twaddle, she thought, and imagined Myles alone at night muttering to himself over books written by other muttering nutters. Yet here he was, at ease in her best armchair with a whiskey in one hand and an elegantly gesticulating cigarette in the other, telling her the story of his life, unrehearsed: the brief years of undergraduate glory (double-first, Dean's Prize in history); the Jablonski crisis; the journeys to Paris, Rome and Vienna; the long years at Interworld Academy; the (unspoken but implied) long decline. Then another whiskey.

"Sorry to be gassing on about myself like this," he said, unapologetically. She watched him as he poured himself the whiskey. Through the brazen facade of the drinker she saw acute self-consciousness in the sudden twitching of his eyebrows and the overplayed flourish in his wrist when he offered her the bottle. Ah, he's remembered, she thought. He's remembered he's alone with me in my house and he hasn't a notion how to proceed. For a moment, she yielded to the female luxury of witnessing the eager male at a loss, but she was a humane woman with many years behind her of caring about the wretched of the earth. She took pity on Myles, as did he on her. In the shadows of the fireplace, with the slow lights of distant ships on the night horizon, they talked more easily than before of their histories and desires. It was a joining of solitudes. Nolan, you eejit, said Myles to himself, the woman's a treasure. And Clare was surprised at how natural it seemed, to sit and talk with mad Myles Nolan.

At last he said good night and went home. Not so long before he would have made a haimes of it by lunging, whiskey-odorous, for her cleavage, but he was wise enough to know that harmony had been struck that night, and drooling advances would only have jarred it into dissonance. Harmoniously, Myles sang all the way home, like a merry farmhand. In his gut there blossomed a warmth greater than the warmth of mere whiskey as he wove his homeward way, describing figure eights and wild whorls on the pavement, acting for himself and the lightships on the horizon the part of debonair Myles Astaire, his Ginger Clare a hop skip and jetée up the old Parade. Out at sea a foghorn mooed, like a cow calving. The lights of the town below glistened like dewdrops in the damp air, and on the heights above the Academy loomed like Schloss Frankenstein, dark but for the lighted rectangle of the Colonel's window in the east wing.

* * * * *

The Colonel was sitting at his desk, looking at photographs. Next to him on the desk was an almost-empty bottle of whiskey. He was loudly humming an old regimental marching song. If anyone had been within earshot, he or she might have detected a quavering in the upper registers. If that hypothetical listener had also become a spectator, he or she might have noticed a slight tremor in the bony hands that had at one time or another held every firearm in the Royal Inniskillings arsenal and that now held glossy snapshots of romping teenaged girls in mock-uniform.

The Colonel sang.

"Oh the soldiers of the King we are,

And stand we shall

Or die we must

Oh bom-bom-bom

Ta bom-tee-dom-dom."

In the photographs the girls frolicked on the grass, played hopscotch, tumbled down slides, all the while displaying milkfed bodies under their skimpy uniforms. Colonel and Mrs. Rainbird were childless and had long since called off all efforts to remedy the situation. The Colonel never really knew what to do in the first place, said his wife, because it wasn't part of Officer's Training at Sandhurst. As for Caroline, the Colonel's private opinion was that she was about as titillating in the nude as a hundredweight of turnips. It was only twenty-eight years of habit--and Caroline's quite exceptional Tandoori chicken--that kept them together. On Saturdays, when Caroline had her bridge night at the McIlwaines,' the Colonel returned to the school after dinner and walked the empty halls like the ghost of Elsinore until it was time to settle down in the office with a bottle and the latest unmarked envelope from Teenscape studios. There was desperation in it, but also (our imaginary onlooker might say) a kind of dignity, as if the Colonel had defiantly retreated into the deepest foxhole on the battlefield, taking with him the barest essentials of life.

"And far from Albion's shore

King and Crown gone to war

To bring heathen Khan to heel

And bugger the sod until he yields

Tarum yarum te dum."

He refilled his glass and drank. Cyprus came to mind: his last tour of duty, hunting down those EOKA bastards who went about shooting everybody to advance their cause. Like that shower up North, calling themselves Irishmen. He was as much an Irishman as they were, so he was, but he'd done his bit for Britain too, and if there was any sense left in these Godforsaken islands they'd get together again under the Crown. Bloody Republicans. All Papism and wanking and blowing people up. They'd have taught the swine a lesson, the old regiment. The way they did to Grivas and his thugs. The Colonel sipped, humming, remembering Grivas. A blazing hot July day in Limassol, three Land Rovers overturned and a Centurion set on fire, but after a single grenade tossed into the cafe there he was, their so-called bleeding Commander in person. No Geneva Convention rubbish with that fellow. Worse than the Irgun he was, not much better than the Nazis--all due credit, though, Jerry was a damned fine soldier. The Colonel raised his glass to Jerry's undeniable qualities.

"Damned fine soldiers," he shouted, then drank, distracted from the gambolling girleens by memories of Arnhem and his first sight of Berlin, '45. What a bloody waste that was. Those German madchen, for a start. Why didn't they have any of them in the school? All blokes, bar the dagoes. Bottoms up--then, suddenly, down. When the Colonel came to, he realized he was lying on the floor. It had come on with the force of a .45 in the face, and it was more than drunkenness, that was certain; for one thing, there was no feeling at all on his left side, except for a residual tingling up and down his leg...a stroke, he thought, trying to say it aloud, but nothing came out, only spit. Bloody hell, he swore, inwardly. Six campaigns in every war zone from Juno to Jerusalem without anything worse than a bullet in the ankle and here he was, lying on the floor in his office, dribbling like a moron. He clawed with his right hand and hauled himself along the floor inch by inch like a beached walrus. Finally he got over to the telephone and lay there, wheezing, forcing himself to go through the alternatives. Not Caroline, that wouldn't do, he thought; anyway, she's at those people's house playing bridge. Can't have the coppers in here with the evidence spread out across the desk. Who the blazes can I trust, he wondered. Got to find someone who won't blow the whistle about the photographs. A warm numbness tingled gently in his left arm and leg and he fought against the desire to pass out. Got to find someone, he urged himself. What about Nolan? Good chap, to the phone was a list of the teachers' home phone numbers. Grunting and gasping, the Colonel levered himself up and grabbed at the phone. It crashed, jangling, to the floor. Through the blur he instructed his still-obedient right hand how to find the number--how to tap it out on the buttons (left, right, left, right)--how to dial--Nolan, stout chap--bit of a soloist himself--only man I can trust...

When Myles answered the phone he heard a wordless yammering on the other end. He thought, illogically, of Clare: since returning home, he'd sat at the window in a Clare afterglow, listening to Schubert on the stereo and imagining an Alpine lake in misty autumn, himself and Clare strolling along lakeside promenades, she in circa 1900 ladies' costume (hat, flowing dress, parasol), he in the gents' equivalent (top hat, walking stick, tails), a paddle steamer casting off, plunging mountains across the water. Was she phoning, he wondered, to share identical dreams with him? But the voice yammered on and he knew it wasn't Clare.

"Mollam," said the voice. "Ah ad drogue."

"Who is this?"

"Gunnel. Gunnel Ainbum. Commup ide away."

"Jesus." He's pissed, thought Milo. "Is that you, Colonel?"

"Ah gorse iss bloody me. Ah ad drogue. Hoy ub."

He actually sounded worse than pissed, as if his mouth were full of marbles, resulting not in fruity elocution but its opposite..."Listen Colonel, this is no good. I have it. We'll use a code. Just go ah once if you mean yes, twice for no. Ready? Now. Are you at home?"

The strangled bellowing of 'Ah,' first twice, then once, conveyed the Academy as the stricken man's whereabouts. Myles mounted his bicycle--seldom used since the accident he'd had six months before--and labored up Toole Street to the school. When he got to the east wing, the office door was open and the Colonel was sprawled face down on the floor, next to the unhooked telephone. He twitched as Myles turned him over onto his back. His face was pink, with patches of white.

"Onna deshk," he said.

"We'll get the ambulance first, sir. Just lie calm, now."

The Colonel flailed in the air with his good arm, pointing.

"Onna deshk," he bleated. "Hide."

Myles went over to the desk and saw the girls.

"Bloody hell," he said.

The Colonel was taken to the Stella Maris hospital. Mrs. Rainbird, summoned from the third rubber at the MacIlwaines,' burst unexpectedly into tears at the sight of her husband in a blue hospital bumfreezer, his mouth awry, staring wildly at the news in Irish on an enormous TV. The doctors soon warned her away, to her relief. Edward had few qualities, she thought, but he was an old soldier and it was a sour trick of God's to do him in like this and make him dependent on men and women young enough to be his grandchildren; still, she had to admit (guiltily), it was a relief not to have him around all the time, like a rehearsal for the day when she wouldn't have him around at all, except for the smells of pipe tobacco and whiskey and old socks that had become as much a part of their house as the four walls themselves. Free on probation, Mrs. Rainbird began making plans for that distant day--distant, according to the doctors at Stella Maris, who told her on Sunday afternoon that the prognosis was good, with a minimum of whiskey and a long rest somewhere in the sun.

* * * * *

With the chief disabled, the future of Interworld Academy hung in the balance. Colonel Rainbird had run a one-man show, dismissing four assistant directors in the first two years of operation and thereafter relying on himself. There was no designated substitute, but on Monday Mrs. Rainbird telephoned Myles. The Colonel, she said, wanted him to fill in.

"But I don't know the first thing about administration," protested Myles.

"Nonsense, Mr. Nolan. Neither does my husband. So long as the bills are paid and the lights are turned on, the school can muddle through."

"I have absolutely no experience."

"Experience not required, Mr. Nolan. Edward insists on having you and that, I am afraid, is that."

Too bloomin' right, thought Myles, or the old goat might have another stroke worrying about his girlie pictures and whether he, Myles, was the right man to keep the secret.

"All right, Mrs. Rainbird. I suppose I have no choice. I just hope the Colonel doesn't regret it."

"Certainly not. Anyway, we're going to spend some time with a cousin of his in Nassau, once he's on the mend. Enough time for you to make a permanent position for yourself as Staff Co-ordinator."

Thus did Glory, unsought by Myles, seek him out. All day Monday, he and Mrs. Rainbird went over correspondence and unpaid bills, readying things for the first full working day without the Colonel since the Academy's opening in 1972. Schedules had to be set, letters written, supplies ordered. Christ, thought Myles, I'll be spending the rest of my life in this hole. On the other hand, Mrs. Rainbird assured him of a dramatic increase in his pauper's pay, to be effective immediately. Larger and handsomer houses than the bungalow on The Parade insinuated themselves into Myles's mind; a car, too, possibly holidays in the South (Provence, Italy). After a day's reconnaissance work, he went down the hill to tell Clare. It wouldn't hurt his chances there, he reckoned, being a man with prospects.

Clare's front door was opened by jolly Ben Ryan. A glass of wine was in his hand.

"Blow me down, it's old Myles," said jolly Ben.

"Hello, Ben. I thought you were in Dublin."

"I was. Now I'm here. Was it Clare you were wanting, was it?"

"It was. But if there's some kind of hooley going on in there, I'll not intrude."

"Hooley yer granny. We're having a wee drop. You know, she's a game girl, Mac Hen is. Full of life."

"She is that." Between Myles and jolly Ben stood the ghost of Steve Jablonski. "Rainbird's been taken ill."

"So I heard. Stroke, was it?"

"It was."

Ben Ryan was leaning against the doorjamb, smiling what Myles interpreted as a smile of triumph. Music started up in the background: a violin, followed by more violins. Clare was in there, thought Myles, undressed or damned near, probably half-pissed as well. The whores.

"He's asked me to be Acting Director," said Myles, letting Ben have it between the eyes. "Starting tomorrow."

"Has he now, well that's grand. Listen, why don't you come in, we've some pretty dramatic news too."

From inside the house, Clare's voice rose above the melting strings.

"Ben? Who's that?"

"Ah, it's only the Acting Director of Interworld Academy," shouted Ben, over his shoulder. Myles turned and walked down the path to the street. Behind him he heard Clare and Ben Ryan calling his name. In his heated imagination it sounded as if the call were being taken up by other voices, the whole neighborhood crying out for Myles, but he strode manfully on, aloof to all blandishments. Dramatic news, was it? Damn the woman and damn Ben Ryan, that womanizing jackeen with no more culture in him than a stevedore. To be Acting Director seemed a trifling thing compared to the perfidy of Woman. Not to mention that of alleged friends. Mother of God, raved Myles to himself, I might as well have done with it. Just go into a monastery and think of sin.

* * * * *

On the last afternoon of the bank holiday fewer Dublin families were on The Parade, but the townspeople were there, old and young and in between. Myles, as a longtime resident, recognized many of them. There was Mr. Delaney, the turf accountant, arm in arm with vast-bosomed Mrs. Delaney. Frank Tuohy from the Peat Board passed by, alone, head bowed, dreaming no doubt of an Ireland paved from Antrim to Kerry with peat briquettes. Jack Norton and his wife Rose, both liberal lawyers, and the three little Norton horrors, two of whom had loosened the front wheel struts on Myles's bicycle and caused him to be catapulted into Mrs. Harrington's garden next door (Mrs. Harrington, taking the incursion to be a sexual advance of some kind, had attacked Myles's inert body with a broom); since then Myles had cut down on his cycling. He nodded to the adult Nortons, who nodded back. The brats stared, remembering.

Although in his capacity as acting director he had work to do, Myles also had a growling stomach and five pounds in his pocket, enough for a chicken pie and a couple of pints at Gallogly's, Donovan's being risky after Saturday.

When he arrived at Gallogly's, he paused at the door. Raucous, full-throated singing was coming from inside, and Myles thought he recognized one voice in the chorus. He opened the door. There wasn't an empty seat in the place, and the local hearties were packed in four deep at the bar. They were raising their glasses and rocking back and forth like courting bears, rhapsodizing in unison. At the far end of the bar was a stage beneath a banner that read, "Gallogly's Karaoke Nights With Tokyo Taka." Leading the singing from atop the stage, mike in hand like Frank Sinatra at Caesar's Palace, was Mr. Watanabe.

"Oh, Babs the Babe," he trilled.

"Oh, Babs the Babe," roared the working class.

"She was a wench."

"She was a wench."

"Who liked the sound of love, oh yeah!"

"Oh yeah!"

It was a cross-cultural love-in unmatched by the United Nations. Myles knew better than to intrude on a scene of such gladsome chumminess and decided to go up to The Quare Fella for his pint and chicken pie.

* * * * *

The holiday was over. On Tuesday, Herr Hockenburg marched into class to find Clare sitting behind the teacher's desk, with the new Acting Director's pencilled instructions in front of her. Myles deemed it a fitting punishment for her errant ways. Himself above mere language instruction, he now presided over Colonel Rainbird's desk with a mountain, or knoll, of paperwork in front of him: letters to be answered, phone calls to be made. Mrs. Rainbird visited on her way from the hospital to the hairdresser's; otherwise, Myles was left alone. He surprised himself with his own efficiency. After writing five letters, he checked the student roster, tracked down three truant Italians and ordered a dozen textbooks from a Cork warehouse. At noon he went into the garden for a smoke. October was ending balmily. The scent of peat and burning autumn leaves hung in the still air. A ferryboat was moving slowly out to sea from Rosslare Harbour. As Myles was taking the last drag on his cigarette, Clare Machen came around the corner, walking fast. Acting Director or not, he couldn't prevent his heart from skipping a beat at the sight of her. She looked grim.

"Myles Nolan, you're a right gawm. Did you know that?"

Myles nodded, having nothing to say. Clare came up to him and folded her arms.

"Why didn't you tell me you'd been named Acting God?"

"Well," said Myles.

"Ach. I know you came over to tell me, but why did you walk away like that? Because Ben was there?"

Myles shook his head, dumbly.

"Did you think we were having it off or what?"

"Having it off?"

"Hadn't you the least notion why Ben was there at all? I suppose not. You didn't give him the time to say anything. He was there with his fiancee. He'd been around to your house but you were out so he decided to come share the good news with me. And she's a grand girl, so she is. We'd have had a party if it hadn't been for you skelping off like that. They're to be married in April, but the dear knows Ben wasn't too pleased at the way you carried on, so, Acting Director or no blooming Acting Director, you'll be lucky if you get invited at all." She took a breath. "Well. I suppose I should congratulate you on your ascent to magnificence."

"Oh, it's nothing much."

Nor was it, thought Myles. A champagne-like ecstasy bubbled up inside him. Once again he'd been quite hopelessly wrong, only this time he thanked God for it.

"I'll make it up to you," he said, taking Clare by the hand.

"Oh, Myles."

"I'll change the schedules, for a start," he said, his eyes shining. "You won't have to teach Hockenburg again. I promise." He took both her hands in his, then frowned. "Well. No more than once a week, at least."

Oh, Myles, thought Clare. Tears welled, but laughter was close behind.

Copyright © 1997 by Roger Boylan

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